WELSH PREMIER FOOTBALL

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Europe
[Left] Carmarthen's Mark Jones celebrates victory over Longford and [right] Barry Hogan scores a
late goal for TNS in a first-leg win over Ventspils.

THE record of Welsh Premier clubs in Europe is not one to shout about!
Until a famous night in July 2005, only twice had a side from the Principality's domestic league ventured beyond the first stage of a European competition - and on both occasions it was seven-times champions Barry Town.
The Dragons famously reached the first round of the Uefa Cup in 1996 after beating FC Dinaburg from Latvia (who have recently beaten both Aberystwyth and Bangor City in the InterToto Cup) and Visutas Budapest from Hungary.
They went on to face Scottish Premier Leaguers Aberdeen and, although beaten 3-1, they drew a crowd of more than 6,000 to the second leg at Jenner Park and achieved a creditable 3-3 draw.
In 2001, Barry again broke the mould of Welsh under-achievement by beating Shamkir from Azerbaijan, 3-0 over both legs, before crashing out at the hands of Portuguese giants Porto.
Managed by Tony Wilcox, Cwmbran Town had blazed the European trail for the fledgling League of Wales when they took on Cork City in August 1993.
The Crows won the first leg at home 3-2, but lost 2-1 in Cork and were eliminated on the away goals rule.
Cwmbran have since appeared five times more in Uefa competition, without success, including a 10-0 aggregate defeat by Celtic.
It was 1996 before Llansantffraid made their first foray abroad, after winning the Welsh Cup in a dramatic penalty shoot-out against arch-rivals Barry at the old National Stadium in Cardiff.
Despite holding Polish side Ruch Chorzow to a 1-1 draw in the first leg at Wrexham, Saints crashed out 5-0 in the away leg.
It was to be another four years before the club was to earn a second tilt at European combat, to start an unbroken run of appearances in Uefa competitions.

Barry v Kiev
Dynamo Kiev's Andriy Shevchenko (left) tries to control the ball under pressure from Barry Town's Gary Lloyd and Lee Barrow in the 1998/9 Champions League [Empics].
As winners of the League of Wales for the first time, TNS found themselves in the Champions League and again drew their home leg at Wrexham, this time against Levadia Maardu of Estonia.
‘Bagger’ Wright and John Toner notched the goals, but the away trip to Tallin proved too much and a 4-0 defeat ended their hopes.
Barry were unable to replicate their European form in 2002, losing 6-0 at the hands of perennial Latvian champions Skonto Riga, who disposed of Rhyl 7-1 in the 2004/5 Champions League.
The following year brought the 'dream draw' which captured the imagination of fans across the UK and Europe. TNS were pitted against Manchester City, who qualified for the Uefa Cup because of their fair play record, in a classic David and Goliath encounter.
Saints acquitted themselves creditably in both legs, despite recording a 7-0 aggregate loss, and became the first club to play a competitive game in the new City of Manchester Stadium and to stage a European tie at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium.
Lightning struck twice for the side from Llansantffraid when they drew mighty Liverpool in the Champions League first qualifying round in 2005. A 3-0 defeat in both legs was no disgrace, with Steven Gerrard scoring five of the goals.
But back to July 2005 and the night when Rhyl secured an away goals triumph over Lithuanians Atalantas and Carmarthen recorded the highest-ever victory by a Welsh Premier club in Europe, beating Longford Town 5-1 at Newtown.
A glimmer of hope that perhaps, at long last, the league was ready to improve its standing in Europe - with Llanelli reinforcing that dream by reaching the second qualifying round of the Uefa Cup in 2006 by beating Swedish outfit Gefle IF. Rhyl and TNS also performed creditably in their ties, despite being beaten.
Four years later, two clubs again progressed past the first hurdle in Europe, TNS beating Bohemians 4-1 on aggregate, and Bangor City getting the better of FC Honka from Finland.
Whatever the relative standard of the Welsh Premier League, domestic clubs undoubtedly face an uphill climb when they meet the majority of their European counterparts.
Many play in the summer and come to their ties match fit. Our clubs must bring forward their pre-season build-up and find it difficult to arrange adequate friendly games in which to prepare, with TNS solving that problem by fixing up games against sides in Northern Ireland on a regular basis.
Some say it is a potent argument for summer football in Wales, although many traditionalists disagree, and Irish clubs have shown the benefit of playing European ties mid-season with some excellent results.
The debate will continue but, whatever the remedy, there is little doubt that Welsh Premier clubs still have some way to go before they can become a regular and potent force on the European stage.